Unravelling Filipino terrorism

MANILA WAS IN pitch darkness and gangs of soldiers roamed the streets arresting anyone who was foolish enough to be out without a good excuse. A gun was thrust into the airport taxi I was travelling in but was quickly withdrawn when my driver explained I was a foreigner with an introduction to meet a high-ranking Filipino police officer. It was 1973 and the new Australian attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, had asked me to report on how police dealt with organised crime in South-East Asia. The Philippines was my first destination. I arrived a few days after President Marcos declared martial law.

The next day I met the police general with whom I was scheduled to have discussions. He greeted me warmly and offered me a cigar and a whisky even though it was only 10 in the morning. The general was a squat, tough-looking man with a metre of medals pinned to his chest and had no hesitation in answering my question about the rationale for martial law.

He said it was essential to neutralise the current crop of communist terrorists and other insurgents. There was no hint of apology. "We did it before and we will do it again," he told me, and explained how the national government had brutally crushed communist guerillas terrorising most of Luzon just after World War II, proudly pointing to the medals he won during the campaign. If the New People's Army (NPA), an offshoot of the remnants of the guerillas, was to be eliminated then martial law, detention without trial and even the political assassination of NPA leaders would all be used with a vengeance, he proudly proclaimed.

THE NPA, FOUNDED in 1969, was a Marxist guerilla group that waged a protracted insurgency from the countryside aimed at overthrowing the Marcos government and establishing a communist state. The group enjoyed widespread support, especially from those sickened by the excesses and brutality of the Marcos regime and the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

As it turned out, the NPA was never crushed by government forces but neither, on the other hand, was it able to overthrow the Marcos regime. That task was left to "people power" when hundreds of thousands of ordinary middle– and working-class citizens marched through the streets of Manila in 1986 protesting against a rigged election in which Marcos was proclaimed winner over Cory Aquino. Although I was not in the Philippines at the time, I watched with delight the television coverage of the euphoric street demonstrations that eventually led to the deposing of the dictator.

Two years after Aquino came to power I returned to the Philippines and found this euphoria had all but disappeared. Certainly, some democratic institutions had been restored but rich oligarchies still held most of the land and the social gap was, if anything, widening. I remember visiting the slum area of Smokey Mountain in the Tondo district and seeing a level of poverty that was as great as I had seen in the slums of Bombay or Calcutta. At Smokey Mountain, essentially the world's largest exposed dump site, where thousands of families live, I watched children scavenge through the rubbish looking for food, living testament to a level of poverty and despair that was at least as great as under Marcos.

THERE WAS, HOWEVER, a renewed sense of optimism when President Fidel Ramos was elected in 1992. Ramos promised to end the vicious civil war in Mindanao that had plagued the country for the previous two decades. The central government was in conflict with two guerilla groups – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The former group once enjoyed support from Libya, Saudi Arabia and nearby Malaysia and originally demanded an independent Muslim state in the south. The MILF, on the other hand, split from the MNLF in the late 1970s over ethnic and strategic differences.

Both groups originated in a province with some of the richest agricultural land in the country, yet the economy was in tatters after years of neglect by the Manila government. Muslims in Mindanao also suffered severe political marginalisation and their communities endured some of the highest rates of infant mortality, illiteracy and unemployment in the country. But what really drove guerilla insurgencies, according to Muslims I talked to, was a sense of being deliberately swamped by Christian settlers from Luzon.

Both the Spanish and American colonisations of the Philippines included massive resettlement programs encouraging Christian internal migration. The Philippines Government continued this policy so that by 1983 it was estimated that 80 per cent of the 10 million people living in Mindanao were non-Muslims. Christian agricultural communities were created deep in the heart of indigenous Muslim territories and the bitterness that these settlements generated led to a civil war that began in 1971 and over the next 25 years led to the loss of 120,000 lives.

To deal with this bloodbath President Ramos signed a peace agreement in 1996 with MNLF leader Nur Misuari, in what was known as the Davao consensus. Some degree of self-determination and, most importantly, economic investment was promised for the region. It looked as though cultural, social and religious autonomy for Muslims living in Mindanao was at last to become a reality. Unfortunately, the civil war in Mindanao did not end, mainly because the other major Muslim organisation, the MILF, rejected the 1996 peace plan on the grounds that the concessions by the government did not go far enough. To this day the group continues to fight on and so do elements of the MNLF.

I WAS IN the Phillipines again during Ramos' election campaign when he promised that his country would become part of the Asian tiger-cub economy in which ordinary Filipinos would benefit under a regime of law and democracy where corruption would be weeded out. At that time I visited a Filipino friend who lived in the violent, politically volatile slum district of Tondo. The area was known to be a breeding ground for some of the toughest criminals in the country and was also infamous for being the home of the notorious NPA "Sparrow Squads", who, during the 1960s and 1970s, assassinated police officers and government officials.

As we walked along the streets close to the Tondo cathedral, one of the most historic churches in the Philippines, I was overwhelmed by the sight of rubbish strewn all over the streets and the appalling slum houses where families of 10 or more were crammed into one room. Political graffiti was plastered across walls and buildings. I remember my friend bitterly pointing to the Tagalog scrawls and saying their vitriolic messages denouncing the government showed that there was as much chance of Ramos's promise being kept as there was for the NPA to disappear from Tondo or the Luzon countryside.

It was during this trip to Tondo that I began to realise that terrorism in the Philippines was never going to be stopped unless something was done to improve the intolerable conditions under which many Filipinos lived. Tondo might be one of the worst examples of these conditions in Metro Manila but I have seen equally appalling conditions in many other parts of the country. Added to these intolerable living conditions there was rampant bribery and corruption affecting every domain of Filipino society, from police officers to politicians. This spurs the population to behave as their leaders behave, evidenced by the destruction of the huge Clark Air Base in Pampanga province in 1991 after the Americans departed.

A friend drove me around the area and I witnessed what could only be called mass vandalism and theft. I saw parched earth and ragged, ripped buildings filled with jagged holes that dotted the previously manicured runways and fields. My driver told me that the Americans left more than 116,000 items for the Filipino government to use. But the population stole all of them, including every piece of equipment from a five-storey hospital.

One of the country's most famous newspaper columnists, Max Soliven, suggested half-seriously that as a result of the rape of Clark "the Philippine flag be replaced with the skull and crossbones of pirates". My driver disagreed and was not at all apologetic about the pillage. "Big people take money from everywhere," he said. "So why can't the little people take some money too?"

UNDER THE RAMOS government Muslin Mindanao never received the economic packages the Davao consensus promised. The planned economic revival that was going to lift the living standards of the Filipino masses never eventuated. Nor was Ramos able to stem the endemic corrupt practices.

Then came the election of Joseph Estrada in 1998. The rural masses heavily supported the former B-grade actor because he promised to lift them from the quagmire of poverty and despair. Estrada and the provincial poor had a political love affair not only because he promised an escape from poverty but also because of his image. He was a tough guy in the essential John Wayne mould, a womaniser with many mistresses who loved the adulation the masses bestowed on him. Far from harming his political ambitions, his philandering struck a chord within the romantic, masochistic Filipino culture and his popularity soared.

The new president may have promised a great deal but, like Ramos, his government did little to visibly improve the condition of the masses. Though Estrada visited many towns and villages during his presidency and lavished gifts and money on his supporters, the country's economy stagnated, unemployment grew and corruption became even more endemic than before. Some of his supporters still worship him but most Filipinos I met during the latter days of his regime felt bitter and angry about the way he betrayed his nation by looking after his own interests and not those of the people. The former president is facing corruption charges that carry the death penalty and though he still has some support in the countryside it appears that his political appeal has rapidly diminished.

ESTRADA DID TRY to deal with the terrorist networks and the civil war in Mindanao but he used brute military force, not social or economic development, as his weapon. A large, well-equipped army was sent against the MILF, killing hundreds of its members. Stories of atrocities committed against civilians by troops and vigilante groups abound and provide recruitment fodder to enlist future Muslim rebels. One tactic that was continuously mentioned to me by Filipino academics was the use of special Christian vigilante groups, established by the military, who were formed to ostensibly secure "law and order" in mixed Christian and Muslim areas in Mindanao. I heard stories about many random shootings of civilians by these militias, stories that were often repeated in the national media. But I also heard from Christians who told me about similar massacres by Muslim vigilante groups in the same region.

The frequency and sources for these narratives make it likely that at least some of them were true. What was undoubtedly true was that there were some military successes during the Estrada era. The army closed down the notorious Abu Bakar terrorist camp that trained not only men from Mindanao but also Muslims from Indonesia and the Middle East. Though Estrada boasted that they had "pacified" the Muslim rebels, it was clear that the MILF was far from defeated. It was also apparent that corrupt members of the army and the police were undermining attempts to deal with terrorist groups and especially with the notorious Abu Sayyaf guerillas.

The Abu Sayyaf is a radical Islamist group whose activities are now deeply etched within recent Filipino history. In 1995, about 200 of its members arrived by boats and attacked a largely Christian town on the western coast of Mindanao. Using bazookas and recoilless rifles they indiscriminately fired on the population, killing at least 53 people and wounding another 44. The town was previously almost entirely Muslim in population but over the past 30 years had been overtaken by Christians. It looked as though the massacre was also a warning to other Muslim groups not to co-operate with the government because, in a statement after the attack, an Abu Sayyaf spokesman criticised the mainstream MNLF leadership for "betraying the Muslim cause".

In more recent years, the Abu Sayyaf has employed bandit-like tactics such as the kidnapping and beheading of foreigners. In May 2001, the group kidnapped 20 people, including three Americans, one of whom was beheaded. The rebels obtained millions of dollars from these and other criminal activities (such as drug-running) and for years escaped military ambushes despite massive military resources arraigned against them. It now appears that the terrorist group's Houdini-like skill resulted from the money-for-information deals between Abu Sayyaf and the army, deals that led to much comment and criticism within the Philippines media. After the September 11 attacks in New York, the Filipino government, with advice from American Special Forces, launched a major campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, killing scores, perhaps hundreds, of their fighters and sympathisers.

The history of the Abu Sayyaf and the government's attempt to eliminate it illustrates a common theme that emerges in the Philippine battle against terrorism. Bribery and brutality appear to go hand in hand; the terrorist groups and the authorities practise both.

ONE EXAMPLE OF this official brutality was illustrated to me in 1998, at the beginning of the Estrada regime. I was waiting at Manila Airport to fly to Mindanao, accompanied by friends who were supporters of the thrice-elected mayor Rodrigo Duterte. This was a man who attained almost cult-like status in the country after making the most lawless city in the region, Davao, a relatively safe and secure place for locals and foreigners.

We had to wait for several hours to get on an alternate carrier as staff at Philippine Airlines had just gone on strike, and my companions started talking about Duterte. They told me that when he was first elected, 10 years earlier, Duterte inherited a city plagued by kidnappings, murders, drug addiction and a huge communist insurgency problem. Realising that he could not neutralise all these groups in the vast city of 7 million people, Duterte began by negotiating with the communist terrorists. He told them that they had to stop assassinating government officials and engaging in robbery. If they did this then he promised to provide housing and jobs and money for their followers and money for their leaders.

The negotiations were successful, so he turned to dealing with the kidnappers, bank robbers and muggers. He issued a public statement warning criminals that unless they stopped, they would pay a great price. They had heard such threats before and many just laughed at these latest warnings from someone they perceived as merely an upstart mayor. But then the bodies of kidnappers, robbers and remaining communist terrorists were found lying on the city's footpaths with bullets through their heads. When questioned by reporters Duterte denied any involvement in the killings but no one in Davao – and certainly not the group of his supporters I was with – had any doubts about the existence of the death squads.

Later I probed my companions as to whether they were concerned about the morality of the death squads. We were eating dinner at a restaurant in downtown Davao. One of my friends shrugged his shoulders in a typical non-committal Filipino way and then pointed out of the window. "I don't think people out there on the street worry too much about the morality of these things – all they wanted was for Duterte to stop crime and he did."

The problem was that Duterte's success was relatively short-lived. When I returned to the Philippines in 2003, five years after the end of the purge by the mayor, crime in Davao was increasing and so was terrorism, as was so dramatically shown by the March and April bombing attacks last year at the airport.

It was the Moro groups, rather than the NPA, who initiated these attacks and though there are no indications that the communist rebels are especially active in Mindanao, the NPA is far from being a spent force. Indeed, in Luzon and in other parts of the country, newspapers regularly report the deaths of government soldiers killed as the result of NPA raids on outlying army posts or police stations. At least two congressmen have been assassinated by the communist guerillas.

A Filipino friend of mine, who owns a large security firm that works on behalf of telecommunications companies, often visits outlying regions of the country where telecommunications towers are sabotaged by the NPA. He has asked me to accompany him but I must admit that I haven't had the courage yet to do so. I might on my next trip.

"It's quite safe," he tells me. "We go to a good restaurant, eat some chicken adobo, and work out what is a fair price for my clients to pay in order to stop the attacks on the towers." The negotiations seem to stop the sabotage – at least till the money runs out – but strikes against the telecommunication towers resume when the communists require additional funds.

WHAT IS THE lesson to be learnt from all this? It is clear to me that neither bribery nor brute force will end terrorism in the Philippines, a fact that the present Arroyo government is just coming to grips with. Though the government, with the assistance of American military advisers and personnel, appears to have had some successes against the Abu Sayyaf, this group is far from destroyed. Similarly, as social and economic conditions remain abysmally bad and corruption continues unabated, the Moro groups continue to grow from strength to strength.

That bribery still plagues the police and military was vividly illustrated recently during the escape and subsequent shooting of the fanatic Jemaah Islamiah terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi. He was originally a member of the MILF but, as a Jemaah Islamiah terrorist, was responsible for many bombing deaths in the country. Though imprisoned by the police, al-Ghozi was able to walk out of his high-security cell with breathtaking ease.

In the 30 years in which I have visited the Philippines it is hard to see any improvement in the way of life of ordinary people. While the official unemployment figure is only 12.7 per cent, this figure masks a huge rural underemployment rate and the fact that many work full-time in menial jobs for appallingly low wages. There is no social security system, beggars can still be seen on the streets of Manila and prostitution is widespread.

Given the lack of commitment shown by successive governments to deal with the massive social problems affecting the archipelago, it is remarkable that most of the terrorist groups still continue to pursue their own agendas rather than to network extensively among themselves. Though hundreds of Al Qaeda recruits trained at the Moro camps in the late 1990s and Jemaah Islamiah and other fellow travellers move freely around the Philippines, no overarching terrorist organisation exists. The Moro rebels continue to aim for an independent Islamic state, Abu Sayyaf has degenerated into a bunch of bandits and the NPA seems preoccupied with building up its financial resources and members.

None of these groups appears particularly focused on the establishment of an Islamic state across a wide area of South-East Asia – the original aim of Jemaah Islamiah. But how long will it be before the present amorphous nature of the terrorist networks metamorphoses into a loose oligarchy that is structured and organised? Indeed, some experienced terrorist researchers, such as Professor Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al Qaeda, believe that over the past year groups like Jemaah Islamiah, Lasker Jihad, the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF and MNLF have formed interconnecting networks that eventually aim to create a unified Islamic state across the region.

When I last visited the Philippines in July 2003, nothing much had changed since my very first visit. The country still had some of the most vibrant and paradoxically, given the violence that it has endured, peace-loving people on the face of the earth. But the politics were still very much the same. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was urging her army to crush the Moro rebels while still trying to hold peace talks with them. Despite her avowed aim to stop corruption and provide better social and economic opportunities for all Filipinos, there was no evidence of any serious attempt being made to achieve either objective. A new "war on drugs" waged by the government had led to many arrests of low-level pedlars and users but it had also exposed the fact that the police were heavily involved in recycling drugs. As for the ongoing war against the Moro terrorists, one foreign ambassador observed that the government had done everything except engage in a serious development program in Mindanao.

Of course, in the three short years that President Arroyo has been in power, she can hardly be blamed for failing to stop the massive corruption that permeates the country. Nor can she dramatically alter the economic and social marginalisation that millions of Filipinos experience. But unless she, or her successor, begins to deal with the causes of terrorism, rather than just with its symptoms, we can expect to see even more guerilla violence and the tentacles of terrorism spreading throughout this complex and highly volatile country. It is, however, difficult to be optimistic when the leaders of far more developed, affluent and politically sophisticated nations also continue to try to combat terrorism by addressing its result rather than its causes.

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